Monday, November 21, 2005

Tom DeLay and Ron Carey

Former FEC Chairman Bradley Smith writes in defense of Tom DeLay this morning on the Journal op-ed page. Smith is fairly well-known as a strong opponent of campaign finance laws, and his appointment (at the insistence of Republicans in Congress) to the commission that oversees those laws caused some comment when it first happened. His time on the commission was devoted primarily to weakening enforcement of those laws that exist, and to doing what he could to undermine support for further legislation. His column this morning is best seen as an extension of that mission.

He argues that Tom DeLay's actions, and those of TRMPAC (his Texas political action committee), were legal. The outlines of Smith's account are familiar to anyone sufficiently determined or caffeinated to follow to the end of news accounts of the scandal. Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC, for short) was not allowed, under Texas law, to take corporate contributions except for limited purposes. So they took the money, donated it to an arm of the Republican National Committee, and included a list of candidates for the Texas state legislature to whom they wanted the RNC to donate approximately the same amount. Surprising no one, the RNC made the donations. Thus, tightly restricted corporate money was magically transmogrified into unrestricted donations.

Smith rests his defense of DeLay on the ground that the various transfers from committee to committee and account to account are common practice, and "it was widely understood to be legal, ethical and even encouraged by state and federal law." This is true, so long as the transfers are not linked to one another in order to avoid campaign finance regulations. If they are, it becomes a form of money laundering. Smith waves off this issue with the observation that "it is perfectly legal for a national party committee to seek the advice of local political leaders when spending money in their states." Perhaps, but it is fairly credulous to suppose that the "advice" in this instance was much more than a fig leaf. DeLay wanted to use money he wasn't legally allowed to use, so he, in effect, "swapped" the contributions with another committee.

The Journal editorial board can perhaps offer some helpful counsel to Smith in this regard. When the Teamsters and their then-President Ron Carey were caught up in a quite similar scandal involving money that could not be used in a political campaign (Carey's re-election campaign, in that case) being laundered into seemingly legal contributions nine years ago, the Journal was unforgiving. When Carey was indicted, the Journal editorialized that the indictment was "long overdue" and described the fundraising two-step as symptomatic of "the problem of union corruption, which is clearly widespread and probably growing."

Smith is a longstanding opponent of campaign finance laws who, as a matter of principle, regards almost all restrictions on campaign spending as illegitimate and unconstitutional. His enthusiasm for a relaxed reading of the law may be right or wrong, but it is unquestionably honest. The Journal's enthusiasm for vigorous enforcement of the law when it's being applied against Democratic union leaders, but not when Republican machine bosses are in the crosshairs, is something rather less impressive.


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